Back to class: Home ec in the 1970s taught baking skills

Before there were packets of instant hot chocolate, cocoa was a staple of home economics classrooms.

Some of us grew up in the days before pre-packaged hot chocolate mix existed, so you had to make it from scratch.

Back then it was just called a cup of hot cocoa, and you made it with milk — not water — sugar and Hershey’s cocoa powder. I recall it being the first thing we ever made in home economics class in high school, as a beginner recipe for ninth grade. It was paired with cinnamon toast.

Nowadays, home economics class — which was one semester of cooking and one semester of sewing — has evolved into a course called consumer science, which also involves running a household, budgeting and finance, nutrition, food safety and other topics.

I always had a tough time with sewing class, and to this day I get bloody fingers when even sewing on a button. That was not my forte. I think I got rid of my ugly poncho years ago.

But having grown up in a household where food and family dinners were the focus, I watched my mother cook a lot of dishes and it became a passion. The first thing she ever taught me to make, when I was 5 or 6 years old, was butterscotch pudding out of a box mix. I was fascinated by how, when stirring it over the heat, it quickly became thick. She taught me to stir it constantly with a wooden spoon, otherwise it would get lumpy. To this day, I love butterscotch pudding.

Then I tried lemon pudding. Back then, a box of lemon pudding and pie filling came with a yellow gelatin bead in the box that contained lemon oil, and as the mixture cooked on the stove, the bead softened and eventually burst and you could smell the strong lemon. That intrigued me, too.

At Christmastime, my mother would make a nut roll using a yeast dough, which was an all-day process. I would help roll it out, spread on the nuts, roll it up and get it ready for the oven. To this day, I’ve never tackled it by myself. We also made cut-out cookies, and we made little fruit cookies called marzipans, which were tedious works of art using food color as blushes and to color toothpicks green for the stems.

So after I had acquired some basic cooking skills, I got excited about home ec class days in the school kitchen. We had a preview of what we would be making that day by simply walking down the hallways and sniffing the air to try to identify by smell what was baking.

After the hot cocoa lesson, the class recipes became more complicated, and they advanced to making breakfast breads, pizza with raised yeast dough, and desserts such as cream puffs, coconut cream pie, cake and brownies. We never learned how to make main dishes. It was always baking. We learned how to read recipes, and how yeast, eggs, baking powder, soda and salt chemically interact to make things rise.

That was back in the 1970s, before Xerox copiers or printers existed. One vivid memory is the home economics recipes being printed on mimeograph paper with bluish purple ink that had a distinct smell.

I’ve kept a recipe collection through the years, and recently I ran across a stack of the old home ec recipes from school days. The purple ink is a bit faded but, for the most part, the recipes are still legible. I am sharing some of them with you, so if you are a novice baker, they shouldn’t be too hard to tackle. After all, I was in my early teens when I started making many of them. 

These are a few of the easier ones.

French Breakfast Puffs

(Preheat oven to 350 degrees).

1/3 cup shortening

1/2 cup sugar

1 egg

1 1/2 cups pre-sifted flour

1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 cup milk

3 tablespoons melted butter

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 cup sugar

Mix shortening, sugar and egg thoroughly. Sift together pre-sifted flour, baking powder, salt and nutmeg. 

Stir flour mixture into shortening mixture alternately with milk. 

Fill greased muffin cups 2/3 full. Bake 20 to 25 minutes, until golden brown. While still hot, remove from pan and roll tops of puffs in melted butter, then in a mixture of the cinnamon and sugar. Makes one dozen. Enjoy while warm.

Coffee Cake

3/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup shortening

1 egg

1/2 cup milk

1 1/2 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup brown sugar, packed

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 cup finely chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease and flour a 9-inch round cake pan.

Mix sugar, shortening and egg thoroughly in a medium-sized bowl. Stir in milk.

Blend flour, baking powder and salt together with a fork in a smaller bowl. Add the mixture to the shortening and egg mixture and stir just until blended.

In a small third bowl, make topping mixture. Mix brown sugar, cinnamon and walnuts together.

Spread batter in pan and sprinkle topping mixture over the top. Bake 25 to 35 minutes.

Butterscotch Brownies

1/4 c. oil

1 cup brown sugar

1 egg

3/4 cup flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 cup chopped nuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8-inch square pan.

Blend oil and sugar, stir in egg.

In a separate bowl, stir flour, baking powder and salt together, then stir that mixture into the sugar and oil mixture. Add vanilla and mix well. Spread in prepared pan. Bake for 25 minutes. Cool completely before cutting.

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